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He walks up the 17th fairway at Augusta National uncomfortably upright, his hands clutched to both ends of a 7-iron that stretches toward the sky behind his head. He rocks the club from one hip to the other, bending his back side-to-side as he grimaces.
He’s Fred Couples, and he’s on the Masters leaderboard again.
It’s incredible, really. The 54-year-old 1992 Masters Champion has made 27 of 29 career cuts at Augusta National. Since entering his second half-century, he’s finished this tournament — this tournament — tied for 15th or better for four consecutive years.
The absent Tiger hasn’t done that. Neither has Phil, Rory, Kuchar or Scott. Freddie Couples stands alone.
“Can a 50-year-old win here?” Couples asked himself after his 1-under 71 Thursday. “I think so. I’m one of them.”
He misses his par putt at 17, the ball hitting the left lip and whipping out. The gallery groans.
“Everyone loves Freddie,” says a nearby patron roughly the age of Couples. “The question is ‘Can he hold up for four days?’ I can only play for two straight days before my back aches.”
It’s a fair question to ask. Despite his solid finishes, Saturday rounds of 75 and 77 have thrown Couples out of contention of the last two Masters tournaments.
“It’s hard for me personally to play a course this hard day after day for four solid rounds, but my goal is to compete with these guys” Couples said, sitting three behind leader Bill Haas entering Friday’s play. “If Adam (Scott) or Rory (McIlroy) play well, I can’t beat them, but if I play well, I can compete.”
In a tournament that history could title “The Masters without Tiger,” another deep run by Couples would send shockwaves through the calmer-than-normal galleries.
He walks to the 18th tee box, his white tee stuck in his mouth like a toothpick. Couples then, as consistent with most of the day, outdrives his playing partners, Webb Simpson and amateur Chang-woo Lee, both more than 25 years his junior.
The crowd exclaims, not in a “he’s larger-than-life” kind of way, but more from a place of “that’s our guy.”
Freddie is the every man, his face relaxed and often amused, even when a grimace is soon to follow. He’s your neighbor, your fun uncle or your friend’s friend that shows up from time to time, always welcome.
Come Sunday, 22 years removed from his first green jacket, could he be Masters Champion once again?
“If I play well, maybe with nine holes to go, I hit four unbelievable shots and do something good.”
“But that hasn’t happened yet.”
Vince Johnson covers the Masters for Morris Multimedia. He is publisher of the Forsyth County News in Cumming, Ga.